TUESDAY, Aug. 17, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Americans have a passion for the great outdoors but often seem downright lackadaisical about protecting their skin from the sun's damaging rays.

Myths about sun exposure -- and there are quite a few -- may encourage people's risky behaviors, experts say.

Since the mid-1980s, Americans have been warned that they get about 80 percent of their lifetime dose of damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation by age 18. It's no surprise, then, that many adults shrug off skin-protection advice; they think that damage has already been done.

But recent studies suggest that warning is false. One study published last year in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology blames the erroneous message on a mathematical misinterpretation of published data. Americans actually get less than 25 percent of their lifetime UV dose by age 18, investigators from the United States and the Netherlands concluded.

"Sun damage is cumulative throughout your life," explained Linda Rutsch, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's SunWise educational program, which teaches children and their adult caregivers about protecting themselves from overexposure to the sun.

UV damage from the sun is the major cause of skin cancer. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one dies every hour from the disease, the EPA says.

Cases of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, have doubled in the past two decades and will continue to climb, the agency predicts.

Nonmelamoma skin cancers, while less deadly, can result in serious health problems and disfigurement. The most common types are basal cell carcinoma, which causes the appearance of small, fleshy bumps, and squamous cell carcinoma, which produces nodules or red, scaly patches.

If you're an adult, it's not too late to smooth on sunscreen and don a wide-brimmed hat. "You really do still need to protect yourself," Rutsch insisted.

SunWise's main focus is persuading kids to adopt good sun-safety habits while they are young to avoid skin cancer and other serious sun-related problems later in life.

Appealing to sun-worshiping teens does present a challenge. To get middle schoolers' attention, SunWise uses posters developed by the American Academy of Dermatology that show a baby, a cheerleader, and a buff young man, each with very wrinkled faces. It sends the message that wrinkling is not a fact of aging; up to 90 percent of the visible changes to the skin are caused by sun exposure.

"With these kids, just seeing the wrinkles gets through to them because they care so much about their appearance," Rutsch noted.

Americans' love of the sun can make skin protection a tough sell. A recent report from the American Cancer Society shows many kids are not taking sun protection seriously. Three quarters reported getting sunburns during the summer months.

Like teenagers, many adults are equally clueless about the damage the sun can cause.

"The most common myth -- and I still can't believe it -- is that a little bit of tan protects you from the sun," said Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, a private practice dermatologist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

"Even though you don't burn you're still getting sun damage," she said.

Excessive sun exposure, especially blistering sunburns incurred during childhood, can promote malignant melanoma, the AAD says. But there's also evidence that UV radiation used in indoor tanning equipment may cause melanoma, too.

A vaccine currently in clinical trials is showing promise for people with advanced cases of melanoma, McKinley-Grant said. At the moment, though, the best hope for patients is to diagnose their cancer early and remove it surgically, before it spreads to other parts of the body, she said.

If premature aging and skin cancer aren't scary enough, here's another reason to take precautions when you're in the sun: Certain medications and medical conditions can react with ultraviolet light, causing people to burn quickly, a phenomenon known as "photosensitivity."

Scores of commonly used drugs can, in some people, cause phototoxic reactions. The list includes antibiotics, such as tetracycline; anti-hypertensive medications, like hydrochlorothiazide; and even common pain relievers, including ibuprofen and naprosyn.

Certain herbal products can cause photosensitivity, too. Bergamot oil, used to flavor Earl Grey tea, is one that has a strong phototoxic effect.

Skin exposure to certain plants along with sunlight also can produce a sunburn-like response. Limes have been implicated in a number of reported cases.

Another kind of photosensitivity, called photoallergy, produces an itchy rash when a person is exposed to sunlight. It is caused by certain medicines and fragrances. Some people even have photoallergic responses to sunscreens containing PABA, a tanning agent.

You can't avoid the sun, but experts recommend taking certain precautions to reduce your risk of premature aging, skin cancer and other sunlight-induced skin reactions.

Since the sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., it's best to limit exposure during those hours.

"If your going to the beach, take a good umbrella with you," advises McKinley-Grant. "You can wear a good waterproof sunscreen." Just don't sit there and bake.

Before the kids go out, make sure to slather them with sunscreen, too. SunWise's Rutsch recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays and reapplying it frequently. Look for sunscreens with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15.

Seeking out shade and covering up as much as possible are also simple measures that can save your skin.

"Children, especially, need to be active; we certainly aren't encouraging kids to stay indoors," Rutsch said. "Just try and do as many of the steps as possible."

More information

Beat skin damage with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's sun safety action steps.

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